Working Like a Horse

"’Jeff,’ says Bill to me, ‘you are a man of learning and education, besides having knowledge and information concerning not only rudiments but facts and attainments.’

"’I do,’ says I, ‘and I have never regretted it. I am not one,’ says I, ‘who would cheapen education by making it free. Tell me,’ says I, ‘which is of the most value to mankind, literature or horse racing?’

"’Why– er–, playing the po–I mean, of course, the poets and the great writers have got the call, of course,’ says Bill.

"’Exactly,’ says I. ‘Then why do the master minds of finance philanthropy,’ says I, ‘charge us $2 to get into a race-track and let us into a library free? Is that distilling into the masses,’ says I, ‘a correct estimate of the relative value of the two means of self-culture and disorder?’

— O. Henry
The Gentle Grafter

The death earlier this week of Barbaro, the thoroughbred race horse who won the Kentucky Derby then broke his leg during the Preakness, has left an unfathomable sadness in its wake. Perhaps most fascinating is the extent of such emoting among conservatives. Usually the cat-trapped-in-a-mine story is the stuff of bleeding heart lefties who think nothing of spending a million dollars in taxpayer money and closing down traffic for miles. Feline-good stories, we used to sneer, we manly types, chuckling into our beer. But this time it’s different. Your Buckley-Reagan-Gingrich axis acolytes, myself included, have been languishing in sentimentality over this for days.


"Because thoroughbred racing is a rich man’s sport, like golf," my friend says, his premise being that conservatives, whether rich yet or not, aspire to wealth and its appurtenances, more so than the average Joe. He may be right about the breeders, trainers and owners, but certainly not about the average player of ponies. Come with me to Calder Race Course, five miles from my front door, and meet the motley ménage of men of age whose wages are wasted on the wager. There are women there too, harried harridans with sallow complexions and hollow eyes. They start out greedy and they end up needy, but somewhere midway they always turn seedy. Rich they ain’t.

Methinks conservative types gave their hearts to Barbaro because he was no pampered pet. He was a tough-training hard-working striver for excellence. From his earliest youth, trainers motivated him to try a little harder, give a little more of himself, for the reward of self-respect and the respect of others. Almost is good, he was taught, but not good enough. And he took those lessons to heart. He was not an animal of leisure. He was a working animal.

This is hardly a frivolous point. One of the most amazing features of the Bible is its series of protections for working animals. When Moses reviews the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy (5:14), he explains that a Sabbath is only complete if the ox and donkey are also relieved of their work for the day. A later law (ibid 22:10) forbids using an ox and a donkey together to pull a plow, because the disparity in size and strength makes the process painful for both. Then (ibid 25:4) comes a prohibition against muzzling an ox while he plows; he is entitled to snack while he toils.

A few positive Biblical instructions reinforce this further. One (ibid 22:4, also Exodus 23:5) requires you to help your neighbor unload his overburdened donkey, even if you hate the guy, because the animal deserves your concern. The other (ibid 22:6-7) enjoins a person taking the eggs from a nest to wait for the mother to return and then shoo her away; otherwise the bird instinctively returns again and again to search for her missing chicks. We trouble to spare the grief of the conscientious mother, out working hard to provide for her babies.

All animals deserve a degree of compassion, but a million dollars to get the baby bear out of the tree is hard to justify. On the other hand, a hard working animal like Barbaro evokes the perfect blend of respect for his laboring, sympathy for his injury on the job and tenderness for the pain of one of God’s creatures. Add to that our admiration for his beauty as a magnificently sculpted creature and we have the solution to O. Henry’s dilemma. This is one pony a poet can appreciate.